Somewhere in Brooklyn, warehouses are being ransacked after sundown for raw material—anything metal and misshapen will do. Collin Palmer, a musician who performs under the moniker Calmer, pilfers collection bins for scrap metal so he can return to his one-room studio apartment and flatten his finds into oversized cymbals and whatever else he can use in production or on stage.
No metal hammering appears to have made it on his debut EP, however. The comely instrumental sounds of Past Is Present, as well as Palmer’s musical beginnings, tell a much humbler backstory.
Calmer’s Past Is Present, released digitally on Ghostly International’s Moodgadget imprint, is at times a deeply resonant work of jazz- and electronics-driven experimentalism, crafted with part-sampled, part-organic blends of Rhodes keys, brushed drums, and the somber, spongy sound of upright bass. Infrequent woodwind loops fight for a little face time in these sprawling four compositions that, despite mostly having been captured in that same one-room studio apartment, remain fluid and unrestrained for all of its 15 minutes.
“The EP was built on late, late nights and long hours of recording the desire to bring what I love, and to go back to where I came from,” says Palmer. “I wanted to do what was not going to be easy, and I also wanted to try something new. I built a secluded environment to create in, and allowed my influences to come through and not be afraid of them.”
Palmer’s favorite records range from those fashioned by a chorus of acclaimed jazz musicians—Miles Davis, Gil Evans, and Tony Williams—to LPs from early 4AD artists, Motown, the original Warp catalog, and more. These outside forces play a huge part on Past Is Present, while Palmer also unwittingly shares producer/sound artist Amon Tobin’s particular attention to arrangement. Radiant piano chords and an expansive spread of percussion serve as an anchor while backward guitar, bits of muffled brass, and indistinct sampler bank offerings pepper the rest of the recordings.
“Open Source”, a fastidious love letter to the ageless charms of late ‘50s American jazz, harbors a perfect storm of these pieces. Its stop/start tumble eventually intact, “Open Source” rests on a shell of rippling, thick bass that punches in and out with the gloopy persistence that West Coast chameleon producer Madlib so admires. The crackle of vintage Verve vinyl is simulated on the front end, and looped conversation—panned hard-left and stifled—never manages to disrupt “Open Source”‘s reverb trails or the understated countermelodies that drift in toward the close. Palmer laid down the composition’s piano and drums in a North Carolina studio, where integral outboard effects and 1950s-era mics helped him capture the dusty, aged aesthetic that would come to define his EP.
“I wrote ‘Open Source’ on my mother’s baby grand piano,” Palmer explains. “That set the tone for what was to become the EP.” Incidentally, the artist’s mother was more involved in his creative nurturing than that—as a child in Pennsylvania’s Andrew Wyeth country, Palmer accompanied her at the same piano, where she captivated him with selections from the songbooks of Claude Debussy, Bach, and more.
“My mother never made me take lessons, but rather allowed for me to become interested by exposing and subsequently influencing me by her playing,” he says of his first encounters with music.
When his mother played, Palmer would sit and observe the way her hands moved across the keys, later replicating what he’d seen in the manner that his memory could best serve him. It worked, and his parents would soon wonder who taught their prodigy to read music. As his family’s home eventually housed the rehearsal space of his various bands, Palmer fiddled with each instrument that his co-conspirators left behind, honing the skills he would rely on during the Past Is Present sessions years later. “I have a love for the sort of unpredictability or the randomness of improvising with live instruments,” he explains. “The sequencer can be very tiring.” Outside of some samples and the appearance of double-bass, Palmer is the EP’s sole performer, engineer, and producer.
The owner of a rare instruments shop just off Manhattan’s West 4th Street once treated Collin Palmer to a bamboo flute; he uses it often in his studio. It can be heard against the tireless rhythmic motor of the EP’s title track, which is padded with clapping, ringing percussion that’s probably made possible by the same odd West Village shop. In all, the track is monstrous. After repeat listens, you’ll find yourself uncovering new ideas that before didn’t seem remotely in earshot. A headphones-ready epic, “Past Is Present” is a crafty fusion of clamorous, acid-guitar-tinged weariness and polished free jazz. It roars with an onslaught of live and sampled sounds that are at first raw and menacing, but when Palmer pulls back on his grouping of hi-hats, warbling organ lines, and teasing flutes, a more peaceful scene ensues. For a couple of minutes, you can almost make out the sound of discarded construction materials being tapped along to the melody.
“I like to try and write things that allow you to set yourself in your own environment wherever you are,” Palmer says. “Ultimately, if you can listen to music and allow it to bring your mind to multiple places or surroundings, and get a new feeling from it in each environment, you walk away with a lasting imprint of it. To me, you are achieving the ultimate musical experience, just by doing that.”